A Provincial Treasure

For MT
Torzhok is one of Russia's most charming provincial towns. Situated on the Tvertsa River and known for the beauty of its landscape, Torzhok's ensemble of stately churches, houses and shops speaks of an earlier epoch of prosperous merchants and gentry culture. The intimate scale of its central streets belies the fact that the town has a population of 50,000 and is a major center for the production of fire-fighting equipment.

Torzhok is among central Russia's oldest settlements, first mentioned in a medieval chronicle in 1139 -- earlier than Moscow. Its favorable location made it a place of active commerce -- its name is derived from the word for "trading site" -- and the town was closely connected to the city-state of Novgorod, the leading center of early medieval Russian trade. Merchants from Torzhok provided Novgorod with much of its essential grain, and the town also served as a defensive bulwark in Novgorod's southeastern territory. The most dramatic event in the city's medieval history was its heroic resistance to a siege by the Mongols in 1238. Although hopelessly outnumbered, the town's defenders held their ramparts for two weeks. The inevitable outcome was the complete destruction of Torzhok and its inhabitants, but some historians claim that this unexpectedly stout resistance saved Novgorod itself from a devastating attack.

The rise of Muscovite power in the 15th century ultimately brought an end to Novgorod's independence, and in 1478, Torzhok entered the domains of Moscow's ruler Ivan III (the Great). After the founding of St. Petersburg, Torzhok became a major shipping point for supplies moving to the new imperial capital. This commerce stimulated local agriculture and the estates that depended upon it. The post road also brought a steady stream of the rich and famous. In the 1770s, Catherine the Great commissioned the architect Matvei Kazakov to build a small "transit palace" there, as she did in other towns along her route between the two capitals. Catherine's drive to transform provincial Russia by bringing order into its city plans endowed Torzhok with a neoclassical harmony in new marketplaces, churches and adminstrative buildings.

By the turn of the 19th century, this confluence of favorable economic circumstances brought Torzhok to the height of its prosperity. Many of the town's residents rebuilt their houses in stuccoed brick according to model plans promulgated by the authorities to create a greater appearance of order and prosperity in provincial towns. A number of these houses still exist, and they contribute much to Torzhok's 19th-century ambience. During this period Alexander Pushkin visited Torzhok on a number of occasions, as did other prominent writers, such as Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, and Leo Tolstoy.

Despite their despoliation during the Soviet era, the many surviving churches of Torzhok provide the most noticeable evidence of the town's 19th-century architectural glory. For example, the Convent of the Resurrection, founded at the end of the 16th century on one of the bluffs overlooking the Tvertsa River, was completely rebuilt between the late 1700s and 1840. Although the convent still houses a dilapidated Soviet-era clothing factory, it is not far from Catherine's palace and deserves a closer look for its monumental Roman neoclassical style. Most of the town's parish churches were built -- or rebuilt --during the same period, and from 1815 to 1822, Torzhok's major cathedral, the Transfiguration of the Savior, was reconstructed on the banks of the Tvertsa according to a plan by the renowned St. Petersburg architect Carlo Rossi. The neoclassical cathedral's bright yellow walls with white trim make it one of the most prominent features of the center of town.

The dominant feature in the landscape of historic Torzhok is the Boris and Gleb Monastery, dedicated to two of the earliest martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church and founded, according to church accounts, in 1038 -- almost a century before Torzhok itself. Originally built entirely of logs, the monastery gained a number of brick churches and other buildings during the 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1785, work began on the rebuilding of the main monastery church, dedicated to Boris and

William Brumfield / For MT
Torzhok boasts traditional wooden architecture in addition to neoclassical forms.
Gleb and rightly considered one of the greatest monuments of Russian neoclassicism. Completed in 1796, the church was designed by Nikolai Lvov, one of the most talented Russian architects active in the reign of Catherine the Great. In the design of the Boris and Gleb Cathedral, Lvov succeeded in endowing the large structure with perfect geometric proportions and an elegantly simple architectural form. The monastery's wealth also produced the towering Church of the Miraculous Icon of the Savior, constructed over the main entrance gate. The Boris and Gleb Monastery is well worth a visit, not only for its history and architecture, but also for the superb panoramas that it offers of Torzhok and the Tvertsa River. Lvov, incidentally, also designed a number of country estate houses, including the grand mansion at Znamensky-Raek, near Torzhok.

With the altering of trade and industrial patterns in the 19th century, Torzhok's prosperity waned, and by the end of the century, it slipped into the status of minor provincial town, a faded beauty. In the aftermath of revolution and civil war, Torzhok returned to a modest economic existence based on metal-working factories and railroads. This progress was cut short in the fall of 1941, when the Torzhok suddenly found itself near the front lines to the north of Moscow. During the latter half of October, the German air force subjected the town to an intense bombing that destroyed or damaged over hundreds of houses and most of the central market area. Remarkably, most of the town's historic area was restored after the war

Although Torzhok is one of the best-preserved neoclassical ensembles in Russia, the area also has much to offer those interested in Russia's distinctive wooden architecture. The town itself contains one of the most remarkable log churches in Russia, the Church of the Ascension, whose soaring tower of stacked octagons still stands on its original site on a high bluff overlooking the Tvertsa River. The Ascension Church, located not far from the Boris and Gleb Monastery, is now part of the the local Historic and Ethnographic Museum. A small kiosk just inside the entrance sells local crafts and publications of the cultural heritage of Torzhok.

Not far from the town is a lovely park and outdoor museum of wooden architecture on the grounds of the former country estate of Vasilyovo. In addition to the log churches, houses and other buildings assembled on the site, the park has some remains from the Vasilyovo estate, including an ingenious stone bridge designed by Nikolai Lvov. And just across the Tversta River are pavilions from the former Mitino estate. All in all, a visit to Torzhok offers an unrivalled sense of the relationship between town and country when gentry culture was at its peak.

How to Get There

By car: Torzhok, located 60 kilometers northwest of Tver, is about a three-hour drive (in "normal" traffic) on Leningradskoye Shosse (M10).

By train: Daily service is available on suburban trains via Tver. There is also a regular train, Ostashkov, that leaves from Leningradsky Station, but it does not operate every day and the schedule is subject to change.

Where to Stay: The best place to stay in the city is the Tvertsa, a small, comfortable hotel located in a historic district overlooking the Tvertsa River.

What to See

The main building of the Historic and Ethnographic Museum is located on Torgovaya Ploshad. There you can obtain directions to other museum sites in the town, as well as information on getting to the Vasilyovo museum and the Rayek estate. The museum telephone is (8-48251) 5-58-37.